I learned a lot from my friend Cecily Gill, who died this spring at a good old age.
We used to paint together during her long convalescence. I was the last in a long tradition of amateur painter–nieces, friends, granddaughters–who tromped off into the woods of Maine to paint with Cess. Only, we didn’t tromp—she could barely traverse the few yards from bed to dining room table. I’m only a middling artist, but I treasure the times we spent together painting. I learned not from her direction, because she gave very little, but from her presence. When painted, she was in conversation with the canvas, totally absorbed. A kind of full stillness descended a vibration of peacefulness alive with movement. I too was able to drop into my work, too. When I got stuck, I would ask her for help, which she gave in a direct, no no-nonsense way, with a large helping of encouragement.(I come from a family of artists, so my standards are high and my confidence low.) When we would talk about the paintings afterwards, I was struck by how she acted as if she was as much a participant in the process as a creator. Sometimes she would shake her head with wonder and stare at her painting, saying, “Hmm, what is it?” It was as if her paintings surprised and sometimes delighted her as much as anyone else. Her openness to process and her willingness to go into the unknown, wrestle with it and come out with something—whatever it is.
From Cess, I learned to trust the drop down into myself and be safe there. The process of writing is not unlike that of visual art. Jim Harrison, the author of many books, including The Woman Lit by Fireflies, who also died this spring, has this to say about the process of writing: “….I feel absolutely vulnerable, and recognize it’s the best state of mind for a writer….your mind feels a rush of images and ideas. You have acquired humility by accident. Feeling bright-eyed, confident and arrogant doesn’t do this job, unless you are writing the memoir of a narcissist. You are far better off being lost in your work and writing over your head. You don’t know where you are as a point of view unless you go beyond yourself….” (from The Ancient Mariner).
“….unless you go beyond yourself.” The desire to create comes from a longing to not only go into yourself, but also beyond yourself. The intense effort, the willingness to not know, to offer yourself openly, to be surprised, to make a fool of yourself, to fail or not fail, and to be OK with either, and consider the time well-spent—that is what I learned from Cess.
The last time I spoke with Cess, I told her how her paintings made me calm and happy. “Magic,” she said, her eyes shining, acknowledging their mysterious provenance.